Frans Hals was probably born in Antwerp, but he spent his professional life in Haarlem, a small city twenty miles west of Amsterdam. Unlike his contemporary countryman Rembrandt, he did not become internationally famous in his lifetime. He did, however, paint wealthy subjects from Amsterdam and Rotterdam as well as Haarlem, and he received more commissions for group portraits than any other seventeenth-century Dutch artist. Many of these commissions paid high fees; nevertheless, Hals died in the old men's home, a ward of the city of Haarlem.
The sitter for Man with a Herring, the painting's popular title, can be identified from a watercolor copy made by the Haarlem artist Vincent Jansz. van der Vinne and inscribed "Piero, Municipal Beadle of Leiden." This refers to Pieter Cornelisz. van der Morsch of Leiden, who, according to the inscription on the painting, was seventy-three years old in 1616. Van der Morsch was a member of the Leiden society of Rederijkers (rhetoricians). The group composed poetry, organized contests, and staged plays, usually of a humorous, slapstick character. Van der Morsch played the fool for the Leiden Rederijkers; Hals's portrait alludes to this role.
The herring in van der Morsch's hand refers to the Dutch vernacular phrase "to give a smoked herring," which means "to rebuke someone with sarcastic remarks:' Appropriately, in about 1618, van der Morsch chose as his epitaph "distributor of smoked herrings." The slogan Wie begeert (Who wants it?), at the upper left of the painting, wonders aloud who will be the next victim of van der Morsch's caustic wit. The meaning of the sham coat of arms is not clear, but the fact that it is held by a monkey suggests it is a joke, and its elements (the sea and a unicorn) may be a rebus for the sea unicorn, or narwhal. In Dutch, nar is the word for fool, and thus the insignia is probably a punning allusion to van der Morsch's role with the Rederijkers.